Q: We own, and live in, a house near downtown Fairfield. The sidewalk right in front of the house is in really bad shape and getting worse. It’s been deteriorating for several years now. The problem started with a series of cracks that we didn’t worry about. But over the past year or so, these cracks have gotten bigger and bigger as some tree roots have kept putting pressure underneath. This morning one of the neighbors tripped on the crack and chipped his tooth. There are actually chunks of concrete that you can lift right out. Not only is this bad for the appearance of our house but I can only imagine the liability issues. Isn’t the city supposed to maintain the sidewalks? What should we do?
A: Yes, you are correct that the city is responsible for the sidewalk. You may remember a number of years ago the city manager recommended to the city council that they pass an ordinance making Fairfield homeowners responsible for the sidewalks that border their property.
The outcry from the public was deafening. The council quickly pulled back from the idea and the sidewalks have been firmly in the city’s sphere of responsibility ever since.
Municipalities are very concerned about problems like these because they expose the city to liability for injuries, such as those to your neighbor.
As you can imagine, the city needs to hear from people about problems with sidewalks since there’s no way a relatively small number of people at public works can possibly patrol all of the sidewalks in town. So you need to start by notifying the city’s Public Works Department of the problem.
Make sure to document when you notified the city and who you spoke to. You may want to follow up your conversation with a letter.
Under California law, once the city has received notification of the problem they must act within a reasonable time in order to minimize their liability should someone else get hurt.
Generally, the city’s liability to injured pedestrians only begins once the city knows, or should reasonably have known, of the problem. Consequently, I can almost guarantee that the city will repair the problem within the next several months.
That’s the good news.
The bad news is that as long as they make the sidewalk safe there is no legal requirement that it looks good. One of the first, and cheapest, actions the city can take is to send a workman out with a grinder and simply grind down the part of the crack that is a tripping hazard. You’ve probably seen the results of this type of repair around town.
If the crack is big enough and the city is in a hurry to fill it in they will sometimes dump a black asphalt material into the crack.
In other words, just because the city will take care of the problem doesn’t mean they will replace the sidewalk.
Like I said, you need to start by notifying the city of the problem. If the city doesn’t repair the problem with due consideration to the appearance it may take the efforts of you and your neighbors to petition the city to replace the concrete.
But given current budget constraints, it could take a while.
In this type of situation the squeaky wheel really does get the grease.
Tim Jones is a real estate attorney in Fairfield. If you have any real estate questions you would like to have answered in this column you can contact him at [email protected].